New catalyst can help turn carbon dioxide into plastic

Toronto: Scientists have created a catalyst that can efficiently convert carbon dioxide to ethylene, which is used to produce the most common type of plastic.

At the heart of this work is the carbon dioxide reduction reaction, wherein CO2 is converted into other chemicals through the use of an electrical current and a chemical reaction, aided by a catalyst.

Many metals can serve as catalysts in this type of reaction: gold, silver and zinc can make carbon monoxide, while tin and palladium can make formate. Only copper can produce ethylene, the core component of polyethylene plastic.

“Copper is a bit of a magic metal. It’s magic because it can make many different chemicals, like methane, ethylene, and ethanol, but controlling what it makes is difficult,” said Phil De Luna, PhD student at the University of Toronto in Canada.

Researchers were able to design a catalyst and pinpoint the ideal conditions to maximise ethylene production while minimising the methane output to nearly nothing.

Paired with carbon capture technology, this could lead to an incredibly green production mechanism for everyday plastics, meanwhile sequestering harmful greenhouse gases.

“I think the future will be filled with technologies that make value out of waste. It’s exciting because we are working towards developing new and sustainable ways to meet the energy demands of the future,” said De Luna.

By identifying the precise conditions that maximise ethylene production during the reaction, it is possible to engineer a catalyst to meet those conditions.